The question of how we celebrate Eucharist – take spiritual nourishment from bread and wine – while some six million people are dying each year from undernourishment is something Christians must ponder much more deeply.
This is the message of Australian liturgist, Frank Andersen msc, in New Zealand last month to talk about Worshipping Under Southern Skies: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Mass.
Fr Andersen gave workshops on the Eucharist and on his other, more famous string, liturgical music, in Nelson and Wellington, 10 – 17 November.
In a world where, according to former World Bank president, James Wolfenson, some countries are consuming other countries to stay alive and maintain their standard of living, ‘there has to be a profound connection between our Sunday ritual and the struggle of Christ in today’s world’.
Pope John XXIII’s challenge to the second Vatican Council was basically this – ‘to reconnect the Church with the real world’.
As Catholics, Fr Andersen says, we are learning to have ‘loving conversations’ about issues that can be quite divisive. ‘But if we don’t learn to speak about them well we may fail to learn what God is doing with us in this global – and urgent – moment of history.’
Fr Andersen was also concerned to stress the importance of rediscovering the sacredness of creation in dealing with the ecological crisis. He finds his source in an Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, who is a key figure in talks between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
‘He would say quite clearly that unless we return to the central place that creation has in our Eucharist every Sunday, we will never have the context with which to address the ecology crisis.’
In this, Zizioulas is following St Thomas Aquinas who taught that creation was the primary place of God’s revelation to us, that creation is itself a sacred presence.
‘How frequently people notice that in the beauty of creation we experience a sense of sacredness and presence,’ Fr Andersen says. This presence has always been there but ‘we haven’t been as conscious of its impact on our lives. In front of creation’s beauty, we lack a truly contemplative heart’.
Creation was always at the heart of Jewish worship. It has been written into our Eucharistic Prayers all those years, but we lost sight of its significance in the Middle Ages. Our sense of Real Presence became localised in the tabernacle. And while this was ‘prayerful and helpful and beautiful, it was an attitude towards Real Presence that lacked something of the Church’s deeper tradition’.
Now we need to regain a sense of St Paul’s understanding of ‘a new creation in Christ’. Even John writes in the Book of Revelation of ‘a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven’ where ‘God lives among us’ in ways that again give humanity hope.
‘The idea that the whole of creation can be transformed into a deeply religious encounter between us and God is found throughout the New Testament and the Old as well. Paul grows to call this the ‘body of Christ’ – the very phrase the Church uses when offering us Holy Communion!
This symbolic language within the Eucharist commits us to live in a holy communion with all of creation, with all of God’s people on earth. This sense of sacred presence ‘changes the way I act, speak, live and use resources. We are being constantly converted into a deeper responsibility to future generations whom we love’. The Sign of Peace, given to one another, is given thereby to the whole of God’s creation.
‘You can’t do Eucharist without being committed – as communities – to live more authentically that sacred presence.’
For many of us, these may not be easy concepts to grasp. But Fr Andersen says one pathway to deeper understanding is to become more conscious of the words in the Eucharistic Prayers.
‘Words such as, “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation”, in the prayers over the gifts. Or “all life, all holiness comes from you” or phrases like “in the name of every creature under heaven, we praise your glory as we say…”’
We also need to explore more deeply that the changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ at the consecration symbolises ‘not just the lives of all the community present but … the whole of creation’s yearning to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.’
What place does music have in this quest for a deeper experience of Eucharist?
Fr Andersen says the point of music is to lift the community into participation, into another level of consciousness. Music invites us to worlds that we otherwise may not inhabit.
‘That’s why musicians need to be aware that their music is a gift in the service of transporting this community into mystery. The music belongs to the community, not to our musicians. It must be sung from the heart if it’s going to take the heart into mystery.’
In the years when the church spoke Greek, this word ‘mystery’ became so important. It expressed for the Greeks how – when we do the Last Supper ritual of bread and wine – our ordinary lives are lifted up into the life of Jesus whom we are remembering. In front of this extraordinary gift God is giving to us all, we become silent with wonder (museo in Greek means to be silent).
He cites the icons from the Byzantine tradition of Jesus holding open the Gospels. His mouth is invariably closed as the artists tried to convey that, in front of the beauty of the Gospel, even Jesus cannot find the right word!
‘So the loss of the sense of mystery is a concern at all levels of Church today. It’s about the loss of the realisation that our lives can be ennobled and lifted into another entire level of meaning.’
Fr Frank led us several times in singing of this hope that St Paul expressed in the words: ‘May the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, so enlighten the eyes of our minds that we may see how great is that hope to which we have all been called’.
See this website for a full transcript of this interview.